Episode 9

Hawthorne studies - Elton Mayo

The social problems of an industrial civilization (1945)


Elton Mayo was born in 1880 in Adelaide, Australia. He initially studied to become a doctor but after attending different medical schools in Edinburgh and London, he decided to change his career path. Before returning to the University, he traveled, wrote articles and taught English. In 1907 he started his studies in philosophy and psychology at the University of Adelaide, in Australia, where he gained high levels of recognition. He worked at the University of Queensland as a lecturer, where he became chair of philosophy. In 1922 he left Australia for the United States of America. In this period of time he worked at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School as a research associate. His research interests were situated mostly in the field of industrial research, focusing on employee turnover. After conducting a study at a textile mill in Philadelphia funded by a Rockefeller grant, his work became widely known and the Harvard School of Business Administration offered him a position as associate professor in 1926 and then as professor of industrial research, in 1929. This is the period of time which the studies that he is most famous for, the so-called Hawthorne Studies, go back to.

The Hawthorne studies take their name from the Hawthorne works, a factory near Chicago which belonged to Western Electric. Even though these studies are traditionally solely associated with Mayo’s name, most of the experimental work was carried out by Fritz Roethlisberger (his graduate assistant) and William Dickson (head of the department of employee relations at Western Electric). The experiments took place between 1924 and 1932 and were commissioned because the company wanted to understand which was the optimal level of lighting to increase workers’ productivity. Subsequent experiments were conducted looking at variations in the time given for breaks and in piecework payment plans. The results yielded were not expected and the emerging explanations paved the way for the so-called Human relations movement (predecessor of HRM) which aim to understand employee dynamics in light of (informal) group dynamics. With this, Mayo moved away from a purely Tayloristic view of work and introduced ideas which resonate with concepts such as the sense of belonging and of being a team.

The ideas developed during the Hawthorne studies are discussed in greater detail in one of Mayo’s main works: The Human problems of an industrial civilization (1933). They are then expanded and take a more general character in Mayo’s subsequent work: The Social problems of an Industrial Civilization (1945). Thus is the text we are reading for this episode. In this book, Mayo reports on a number of his research projects – including the studies in the Textile Mill in Philadelphia and the Hawthorne Studies previously mentioned – and provides an ambitious social commentary on industrial society. In this, he dialogues with a number of authors, including Chester Barnard, and expresses some nostalgic views on the relationship between the individual, the collective, and technology. Mayo also argues for the development an understanding of humans as social beings by definition, eschewing ideas put forward by economics and traditional political scientists who espouse ideas of the likes of Hobbes, and the importance of field studies in scientific development. 

Join us for Episode 9, as we discuss one of the most famous studies in management theory - Hawthorne studies! 



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